Inclusion of Scholarship Tax Credits in Illinois education reforms applauded
Catholic officials in Illinois are applauding state education funding reforms that include a Scholarship Tax Credit program designed to provide up to $75 million a year in scholarships for qualifying students attending nonpublic schools.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the highly-debated reforms, which overhaul how the state funds public education, in ceremonies Aug. 31 at Ebinger Elementary School in Chicago.
“Today we are making Illinois history,” said Rauner, claiming the legislation ensures that “every child in Illinois has an equal chance at an excellent education.”
While much of the legislative package is designed to remedy past inequities in the funding of the state’s public school districts, the inclusion of the Scholarship Tax Credit program — promoted heavily by the Catholic bishops of Illinois with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago as a lead proponent — is viewed as a significant victory for Catholic and other nonpublic schools throughout the state.
The new program invites taxpayers — individuals, corporations, partnerships or trusts — to donate to designated scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs). Those groups will distribute the funds as scholarships to students from low-income households and others meeting specified requirements planning to attend a qualifying nonpublic school.
In return, donors receive a state tax credit of 75 cents on every dollar they give, up to a maximum donation of $1 million.
“We believe the new legislation will help give students and their parents the opportunity to choose their education and their future,” said the Catholic Conference of Illinois in a statement after the Illinois Senate in Springfield passed a compromise school funding bill on Aug. 29. The previous day, the legislation took two roll-call votes to pass the Illinois House.
Among those attending the signing ceremony in Chicago was Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. In a subsequent interview, Gilligan said the conference’s two years of lobbying for the scholarship program will now give way to intense efforts at implementation over the next 90 days.
“We have every intention of making sure there is a website running at the Illinois Department of Revenue so that a donor on Jan. 1, 2018, will know how to reserve their credit,” said Gilligan.
The short-term goal, he said, is to have as many scholarships as possible available for the next academic year. By the time the legislation sunsets in five years, the hope is to have a “robust program” established with representation “from every demographic region across the state, both ethnically and geographically.”
Under the plan, a student would qualify for a scholarship if his or her family earns 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less ($73,800 for a family of four). A priority will be given to students from higher poverty households or those who reside in a poorly performing public school “focus district.” Students already enrolled in Catholic schools can qualify.
Among the first questions to be addressed, said Gilligan, involve setting up the scholarship-granting organizations. For example, can existing funds in Illinois dioceses — such as the Big Shoulders Fund in the Archdiocese of Chicago — qualify if they are modified to meet state regulations? If new scholarship-granting organizations are established, should there be many or few? Gilligan said the guiding principle will be to ensure that everyone who qualifies has a fair chance of getting a scholarship.
“The first year is going to be tricky, but we can do it,” he said.
Implementation of the Scholarship Tax Credit program will be on the agenda when superintendents from the state’s six dioceses gather in Peoria on Sept. 18. Zach Wichman, director of government relations for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, will be a presenter.
“We’re getting questions now,” said Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria. Local Catholic schools officials, she said, are asking how the new program affects them and what they should say to their families.
Weiss said more information will be forthcoming as implementation progresses. She characterized the landmark education funding reforms as a “win-win” for both public and nonpublic schools. And while acknowledging the Scholarship Tax Credit program had its opponents, including teachers unions and some politicians, she labeled it as “great news” for those families desiring Catholic and other nonpublic education who may not have that option because of financial constraints.
“We’re always trying to build up our scholarship monies,” she said. The Diocese of Peoria, for example, distributes about $600,000 a year in scholarships through the Spalding Endowment, created by a capital campaign in 2004, but those disbursements meet less than 20 percent of the need.
Dr. Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, also called the new state education budget a “true win-win for children and families in Illinois.”
“As an educator and a parent, I support good schools for all students,” said Rigg. “The inclusion of tax credit scholarships in the education bill will be a great benefit to many families in greater Chicago and across Illinois. Families of all income levels deserve to have a choice for their child’s education, and tax credits will enable this choice.”
According to figures from the Chicago archdiocese, the 79,000 students enrolled in Catholic schools in Cook and Lake counties alone save Illinois taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in education costs.
“We are grateful to the governor and the legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle for choosing sensible compromise in making this choice a reality in Illinois,” said the Catholic Conference of Illinois statement. The conference is thanking supporting politicians by name in advertisements being placed in diocesan newspapers throughout the state.
Editor’s note: Further details on the Scholarship Tax Credit program are available on the website of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, ilcatholic.org.